Flood-stricken Pakistan dealing with waterborne diseases, food shortages

Officials in Pakistan raised concern Wednesday over the spread of waterborne diseases among thousands of flood victims, as waters from powerful monsoon rains began to recede in many parts of the country.

Some doctors said initially they were seeing mostly patients traumatized by the flooding, but are now treating people suffering from diarrhea, skin infections and other waterborne ailments in the country’s flood-hit areas. Many pregnant women living in flood-affected areas were also exposed to risks.

The development has forced the government to deploy additional medical teams, dispatch medicine and provide clean drinking water to survivors, many of whom are living in tents and makeshift homes.

The warning came a day after record-breaking floods prompted the United Nations to formally issue an appeal for $160 million US in emergency funding to the impoverished Islamic nation, where about a million homes have been damaged or destroyed.

According to the U.N. Population Fund, about 650,000 pregnant women in flood-affected areas require maternal health services to ensure a safe pregnancy and childbirth.

“Up to 73,000 women expected to deliver next month will need skilled birth attendants, newborn care, and support,” it said in a statement.

Dr. Azra Fazal Pechuho, health minister in the country’s worst-affected province of Sindh, said officials have set up 4,210 medical camps in the province’s flood-hit areas to treat victims now suffering from skin and waterborne diseases, which are common during floods.

Authorities said waterborne diseases among flood victims are now common across the country.

“Initially we received injured people, but now diarrhea is common,” said Farhad Khan, a physician in charge of a medical camp set up in the northwestern town of Charsadda. It is one of the worst flood-hit districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan, where floods killed 257 people since mid-June.

Remote evacuations challenging

Pakistani authorities backed by the military, rescuers and volunteers, have struggled to evacuate marooned people to safer places. On Wednesday, military helicopters continued evacuating flood victims and delivering food to remote regions, according to a statement released by the military. It said it has deployed at least 6,500 troops to assist in rescue and relief operations.

Rescuers were also using boats to evacuate stranded people in southern Sindh province and in remote villages in eastern Punjab province. Floods in the past 24 hours damaged about 70,000 more homes in the country’s northwest and southern Sindh province, according to National Disaster Management Authority.

Although the rains stopped three days ago, large swaths of the country remain under water, and the main rivers, the Indus and the Swat, are still swollen. The National Disaster Management Authority has warned emergency services to be on maximum alert, saying flood waters over the next 24 hours could cause further damage.

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Food crisis looms

Vegetable and fruit prices have soared in markets across Pakistan as devastating rains ruin crops and disrupt supplies, an early sign of how the worst floods in decades are creating food shortages at a time of financial crisis.

Pakistan’s 220 million people are already facing rampant inflation, with consumer prices up 24.9 per cent year-on-year in July. The economy is in turmoil, with fast-depleting foreign reserves and a record depreciation of the rupee against the U.S. dollar.

In the eastern city of Lahore, close to the border with India and far from the worst floods in Sindh province, prices of some vegetables have tripled.

Two women cook food on the ground, under a tree, with a pile of debris in the background.
People cook food beside their damaged house following rains and floods during the monsoon season in Jafarabad on Aug. 28. (Amer Hussain/Reuters)

“Last week, I sold onions for 90 rupees ($0.54 Cdn) a kg and today the government price is 300 ($1.79 Cdn) per kg,” said vegetable seller Ahmad Ali. The Pakistani government sets prices for some fresh produce, although traders often ignore the guidelines.

Tomatoes and onions are among the most common ingredients in Pakistani cooking, and tens of thousands of tonnes of each are consumed each month.

“The supply of vegetables and fruit to Lahore is getting lower day by day because of the flood, rains and destruction to roads,” said Malik Salim Awan, a supplier at Lahore’s fruit and vegetable market.

“Before the current scenario, we were receiving over 100 trucks (of fresh produce) daily. Now, we receive 10 to 15 trucks only,” Awan said.

A boy stands in the muddy rubble of a flooded home.
A flood victim salvages items from a home across a flooded area in Shikarpur district of Sindh province. (Fareed Khan/The Associated Press)

Officials say that more than 809,371 hectares of agricultural land have been flooded, destroying most standing crops and preventing farmers from sowing new ones.

The government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is scrambling to secure supplies.

“The rice crop has been washed away,” Sharif told reporters after visiting northern Pakistan. “Fruit and vegetables are gone.” He said flood waters had swept away 700,000 livestock.

Pakistan’s agrarian sector powers the economy and feeds the people, accounting for more than a fifth of the country’s output, employing up to 40 per cent of the workforce and producing goods worth around $80 billion US annually.

Commerce Minister Naveed Qamar said on Wednesday that the government was close to an agreement to import vegetables and other edible goods from Iran and Afghanistan, and an urgent request had gone to the cabinet to approve it.

“Prices are up already,” Qamar told a news conference, citing the fallout of the floods.

“If you go to buy onions, you wouldn’t get it. If you go to buy tomatoes, you will get it at a much higher price.”

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